Mahmoud Sheikh Ibrahim has seen the worst of ISIS crimes over his years working with journalists covering the conflict in Syria and Iraq.
Shocked to see the numerous interviews by Western publications with ISIS members in Syria and the sympathy some have garnered in the West, he emphasizes that these people don’t regret joining ISIS.
Ibrahim is one of many in Iraq and Syria expressing bewilderment at the sudden attention “ISIS brides” and other ISIS members are getting in the media.
Last week, The Times of London published an interview with Shemima Begum, a British woman who traveled to Syria in 2015 to join ISIS and married a Dutch convert. After her first interview she has become a celebrity in UK media, with Sky News and the BBC sitting down with her in a displaced persons camp in Syria.
According to reports, she also gave birth to a child between giving her first interview and speaking to Sky News on Sunday. She said “it was nice” at first under ISIS. Executions were fine, “Islamically it was allowed,” she said. She is one of several thousand Westerners now held in Syria suspected of ISIS membership. They include people from 41 countries, as well as at up to 800 from European countries.
Interviewers have appeared reticent to ask ISIS members, especially those from European countries, about ISIS crimes, such as enslaving and mass rape of Yazidi women, and genocide. In many interviews, the questions have centered primarily on what would happen if the ISIS member returned to their country of origin, not on the hardships imposed on local Syrians and Iraqis by ISIS and its war. In fact, none of the ISIS members interviewed in the last week have apologized for the harm done to groups like the Yazidis or expressed any interest in the 3,000 Yazidis still missing. Nonetheless, they have said that they want to come home and should be given a “second chance.”
Many of them paint a picture of having lived a privileged life back in Europe before joining ISIS, and then a privileged life in Syria where they seemed to have been at the top of the ISIS social order. Some of the Westerners even managed to receive money from families throughout the war, and they were evacuated by ISIS from one city to the next, appearing to have lived in free housing taken from locals. None of them described having a job while living under ISIS and some described life as good and even “fun.”
As Western media asks if the ISIS members should be allowed to come home, locals are responding.
“Why? So her Salafist buddies back home can start carrying out attacks because they’re emboldened by someone who is in ISIS and will tell them stories about her time in Syria?” one asks on Twitter.
“ISIS members will get away with it because the victims are not Westerners, live in a far away land and don’t speak English,” writes Jenan Moussa of Araba Al Aan TV.
Ali Y. Al-Baroodi, who survived the ISIS occupation of Mosul, was shocked to see how ISIS members described their enjoyable life over the last few years before they were defeated.
“It was hell on Earth and every single one of them made it so
,” he said.
Treated like “second-class humans” by the foreigners who came to occupy Iraq and Syria, he sarcastically wonders whether the ISIS members now pretending to be victims want the locals to “apologize for disturbing their stay here.” He tweets that the ISIS members are not innocent and seeks to remind the world of the missing Yazidi women, “demolished cities and hundreds of mass graves, [and] thousands of orphans and widows.”
Many others who have closely followed the Syrian conflict are also outraged at the sudden sympathy seemingly being given to the Western ISIS members who have been found in Syria.
“It’s impossible to muster sympathy for her. She went to Syria as a colonizer, several months after ISIS beheaded journalists and aid workers,” writes Idrees Ahmad, an author and academic. He argues that she needs to face justice. “Syria has no mechanism for delivering such justice. So its the British state's responsibility. But Britain needs to make sure it doesn't repeat America's mistake. Guantanamo was one of the biggest propaganda triumphs for jihadi recruiters.”
“It’s amazing to me that captured Western ISIS members are framed primarily as people who might or might not harm their home countries. They are colonizers who enslaved, raped and murdered Syrians and Iraqis,” Ahmad writes.
Molly Crabapple is the co-author of Brothers of the Gun, a memoir of the Syrian war. She notes that female members of ISIS played a key role in its abuses of and enslavement of locals.
“I believe that countries need to compensate the victims of crimes committed by their ISIS fighter citizens. In one case I know of, a college-educated Belgian man stole the apartment of a Syrian man, then purchased and repeatedly raped an enslaved Iraqi woman.”
Westerners went to Iraq and Syria to “fulfill their violent fantasies,” she said. Like many, she wonders why media is not focusing on telling the stories of locals who suffered under ISIS instead of the stories of the perpetrators.
Murad Ismael, the co-founder of Yazda, an organization that helps Yazidis, also wants to highlight the female victims that seem to have been forgotten.
“How the hell are we going to stop future mass crimes if we let ISIS go unpunished?” he writes. “Thousands of terrorists left their heavenly countries and came to Iraq and Syria. They came and murdered our men, raped and enslaved our women and girls and took our children.”
Despite the outpouring of anger, many Western media continue to focus primarily on their own citizens who joined ISIS: An American woman “begging” to come back home, a Canadian woman “trapped in Syria” who now wants her second chance.
Many of the Western ISIS members, who have appeared by the hundreds as the war in Syria winds down, have been in displaced-persons camps for only a few weeks or months, while their victims are often still living in IDP camps after four years.
While the ISIS members say they want to go home and get a second chance, there is often no home for the victims of ISIS to go to, and ISIS members have expressed no remorse or desire to give a second chance to the minorities in Iraq and Syria that they sought to genocide.
It leaves many wondering if this is how the war ends, with attention and sympathy for the perpetrators and silence for those left behind in Syria – lives torn apart by the ISIS war.
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